A central experience around my mother was the cutting of my umbilical core. Was the cord mine, hers or ours?
What I remember most about my early relationship with my mother is that it was one of searching, longing, and working towards a connection with her. Even when growing up in a Latin culture surrounded by two abuelas, a long line of tias and a pack of cousins what I really wanted was to connect with my mother. To be seen by her, held by her, listened to and loved.
From the moment I was born, my doting grandmothers, who I called abuelitas, adored me. They made me feel so special that I remember being home alone as a child, laying on my stomach with my chin resting on my hands, looking down an empty hallway and wondered what the house might look and feel if I weren’t there. This curiosity came from a knowing, that, I took up space and I wanted to see the impact without me there.
Working long hours to save for a downpayment of our new home, my parents left the care to my abuela Esther. We lived with her until I was six, and entered first grade.
I spent most of my childhood back and forth between my abuela’s houses which were just blocks away from each other. A brief half mile walk turned into a full afternoon event with frequent stops of hop-scotch, jump rope or hide and seek with a string of neighborhood kids. Although abuelita Tala was blind, she managed to always have a spread of my favorite food: mangos, papayas and rice pudding waiting on the table. Even today, I feel the deep love she had for me. And yet, I always felt that something was missing.
Don’t get me wrong, my mother was always around when she wasn’t at work, but I missed some connection even when she was close by. Now when I look back, I see that as a child, and even young adult, I longed for a sense of security that only I could understand. There were needs that I didn’t know needed to be met. So how could she? How can any one person meet all the needs that I didn’t know I had?
Now I understand that what I wanted from her was a version of love that made sense only to the little girl. Later as a teen, I wanted more than anything to be able to talk to her about the changes I was experiencing and the feelings of alienation and loneliness I felt in a new country. I never thought that she, too, was experiencing estrangement after we left our home in El Salvador and moved to a radically new environment in California. She also was processing her own feelings of isolation and didn’t know how to address mine.
“Talk to your tia,” she’d say knowing that my bond with Aunt Rose was deep and profound. Tia and I would engage in long, meaningful discussions about whatever was relevant in my life. But Aunt Rose lived three thousand miles away, and in the 1970s, the cost of telephone calls was prohibitive. So I just kept it all in and protected my heart from the pain of being rejected by my mother and others in my life.
Decades later, when in my fifties, I began to observe my own emotional reactions triggered by my mother’s responses, or lack of them. It took years of inner work to recognize and experience the pain that some of these early stories carried with them. As I allowed myself to process the pain of disconnection, something happened. By this time, I too was a mother and a deeper awareness of what I thought a mother should be, allowed me to process the pain that I had carried with me.
As a mother, I wondered how my son, Aaron, was interpreting my behavior. The silence between Aaron and me was different from that between my mother and myself. It went beyond the silence caused by his autism, I began to realize that I had not allowed myself to meet him where he was. I noticed that when I allowed myself to be present, in the moment, with him, without another agenda – we were connected. When I truly listened to what was calling us at that moment rather than for what I thought he wanted there was a truly magical connection.
Even though Aaron does not have verbal language, we began to talk. Our conversations began with me asking him a question as I wrote it on a blank piece of paper, suggesting multiple choice answers, including “something else” and “I don’t know.” Our talks lasted for as long as my hand could keep moving and then I’d ask him for a break. Our conversations vary in subject matter from asking him how he’s feeling to questions about his favorite politician.
Sometimes now when I see him in his room, quiet and distant, I ask him if he wants to talk. He often says yes. I’ve learned to trust his answers without offering too much interpretation or judgment. I’ve also become okay with not knowing what he means or wants to say.
Opening up was not easy for my mother. She was a private and quiet person and eventually I accepted her for who she was. Something changed, though, after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As the illness progressed, I found more opportunities to ask her questions that allowed her to share what was going on within her. She soon began to lose some of her natural capacity to walk and talk.
The many doctor visits allowed for more time together, and I dared to ask more questions when the opportunity arose. I recall one of our last conversations as we stood in the kitchen looking out to the blooming bougainvilleas. In a sudden break from silence, she said, looking away from me,
“I always wanted more children,”. She was the youngest girl in a family of nine. Being her mother’s helper didn’t allow for a childhood of her own.
“At least one, maybe two more,” she added.
“And why didn’t you?” I asked.
“Your father,” she replied. I knew part of the story behind her answer. At that moment I experienced with her, the pain that his decision had caused her. I stayed with my own inner emotions, not needing to change hers. It was a short conversation, but one of the most profound of our lives.
My relationship with my mother was elusive like a cabin in the middle of a lake. I always knew it was there, but I wasn’t sure if I could swim that far.
What I really want to say is that I miss my mother. My abuelas Esther, Tala and Tia Rose, also my mothers, are all gone now. But the one I most miss is the one still attached to my umbilical cord.